My great grandmother used to believe that cats will suck the breath out of babies. She had a lot of interesting beliefs. Sounds crazy, but I guess that used to be a common opinion that still surfaces from time to time. You would think a little logic would dispel the myth, yes? I’ve never seen a cat try to suck the breath out of anything. How would a cat even do that? Why would a cat NEED to do that, given how plentiful oxygen is?
It all smacks of a much older, even ancient, mythology… where cats are demons that are possessing the souls of the innocents. Something about cats and witches and devils and calamity. My great grandmother was a strange mixture of extremely Christian and throwback Druid… she would obsessively watch religious programming, yet knew all kinds of herbal remedies and would buy dozens of Ouija boards. She would paint them black because the Ouija symbols were “of the devil,” then use them as lap desks. I always wondered why she felt compelled to buy them if they were of the devil, but she seemed determined.
She was also an odd mixture of helpful advice and bizarre superstitions. She was a breastfeeding advocate who never shaved (because “that’s the was God made me”), and did not believe in episiotomies (“They shouldn’t have to cut you. Doctors should know how to turn the baby right”). You go, grandma… I sure as hell didn’t want to be cut, and apparently medical wisdom is starting to turn against routine cutting. She also didn’t believe in buying special baby food instead of grinding up whatever the parents are eating. You could say she had ancient wisdom about such things.
But she also had some strange beliefs, like the idea that eating too much salt will make your blood turn to salt in your veins. She spoke in a symbolic way that was lost on me as a child. She would say, “Jesus is knocking at the door!” so, I would run to the door and open it, wondering where Jesus went. I could never figure out if grandma was hearing things or if Jesus was constantly pranking the house.
Either way, the cat sucking baby’s breath deal is most definitely a myth. It’s always a good idea to supervise animals around infants, of course, because even blankets can accidentally suffocate an infant who is unable to flip over or move around much. But at our house, at least, the cats have been excellent infant guardians. They snuggle up around our babies and purr, these protective panthers who never scratch. Cats are calming. They must seem enormous to our kids. I wonder if they are leaving a primal impression on their developing minds and whether the image of giant feline sentries is lodging itself in their collective unconscious. Freya, the Norse love goddess who rides a chariot pulled by massive cats, may seem significant some day. Or Bastet, the Egyptian perfumed protector.
Cats really suffered a reputation slip in Medieval Europe, didn’t they? Once they were gods, and then they were suddenly evil witches’ companions. You would think cats would be held in higher esteem by the Medieval folks, what with all their rat problems: Rats busting into the granaries to demolish the bread supply, rats spreading the Bubonic Plague all over the place… A well-equipped Cat Army might have really helped out.
Cats must have been a great comfort to older women in those days, napping quietly nearby as women sat at the hearth, weaving, stirring stews, and doing whatever older ladies did back then. Rounding up old women and their pets seems unspeakably cruel.
My grandma kept a few cats around the house, despite her conviction that they were after babies’ breath. She would have liked mine.